Pillowcase was filled with enough rage that it was surprising fabrics weren’t spontaneously combusting in her vicinity. As a ghost there were, perhaps, additional limitations on her ability to set the material world on fire but it still felt wrong that her rage was insufficient to overcome them.
“Returning to the [Heart Fire]. Will be back in the battle in thirty seconds,” Pillowcase didn’t waste time sharing her thoughts. The recriminations she could make against herself weren’t going to help the party fight better. They needed clarity and a lack of distractions.
Not that there was much of a party left.
Pillowcase had made it to the end of the room where the three boss monsters were located and had just started racing up the passageway back to the [Heart Fire] when she saw Alice’s health plummet to zero too.
It wasn’t a surprise.
Once the tanks start to fall, the rest of the party usually isn’t far behind.
It was why she couldn’t be weak. Why she couldn’t allow herself to fail. As long as she stood, they could recover from anything. When she frayed and ripped though? Everyone else suffered then too.
She tried to run faster, but despite the lack of a body to hold her back, and despite the shame of her mistakes screaming for her to try harder, to redeem herself somehow, Pillowcase couldn’t find any more strength than what she was already using.
As she ran up the tunnel, heading towards chance to rejoin the battle, she thought of the second chance she’d already received.
She was a failure to start with. Before she’d woken up again in the [Fields of the Wasted] outside of [Sky’s Edge], she’d stumbled and fallen.
The Great Battle which she had been crafted for hadn’t ended in either victory or glory. The forces she’d fought with had pushed through feeble, weak foes. The militias of the [Fallen Kingdoms] were sad, pathetic things, as her teachers told her all militias were. There was no victory worth speaking of there, no reassurance that her construction had produced someone worth the materials she was sewn from.
Tessa shook her head. Was that even real, she wondered?
Her memories as Pillowcase had a sharpness to them which went beyond idle imagination. She didn’t have a continuous stream of them, not even as continuous as her own admittedly spotty human memories, but there were moments she could see that went beyond what her idle day dreaming had ever cooked up.
Whether or not Pillowcase’s memories were real though, the pain and anger she felt certainly was.
Tessa sighed as she ran. She could echo Pillowcase’s fears of being unworthy. It wasn’t like anyone at work made a point to commend her on a job well done, and her recent breakup hadn’t exactly been a giant confidence booster either.
“The other party is has two people down now”, Alice said on the team’s private channel.
Tessa could hear the flames in Alice’s voice. She was as angry as Tessa was. Maybe moreso.
That was a sobering thought.
Alice had every reason to blame Pillowcase for dying. Pillowcase had been grand standing, taking on two of the [Soul Blights] at once and not staying in position to defend her team when they needed her. Worse, Alice had explicitly asked if Pillowcase could handle things and Pillowcase had been wrong when she said she could. If she’d avoided any of the mistakes she’d made, they could easily still be fighting, and winning, but she just wasn’t that good. Try as she might, her dead body wouldn’t let her deny it.
Tessa felt the cold fingers of rejection reach slowly around her heart.
What healer would want a tank who was made of tissue paper? Why would Alice waste anymore time with Pillowcase when there was a whole other party she could join. More people meant more safety. It wasn’t cruel. It was the sensible thing to do.
Tessa tried believing that and failed completely.
It was easy enough to believe that Alice jumping ship to the other party would be the smart move. Tessa swallowing that as a good thing for herself though? She just couldn’t. She…She didn’t work like that.
It was almost funny. She hated losing people just as much as she sucked at holding on to them.
“We’re at the [Heart Fire] now,” Rip said, breathless even as a ghost. “Should we respawn here or bring it back and respawn where we fell?”
Tessa knew the urge to charge back into the fray but was also fully conversant with how bad of an idea that could be.
“Respawn at the [Heart Fire], but wait for us there,” she said, repeating advice she’d heard countless tanks before her give.
If only one of them had dropped, then rushing back into the fight might have been fine. As long as the backbone of the team was there, those who returned would be able to restore the strength the team had lost, sometimes even beyond where it had been when they died.
That only worked if there were enough fighters left on the field that the returning players wouldn’t simply be part of an inevitable collapse as the balance of power tumbled ever farther against them. Adding fresh bodies to that sort of meat grinder meant creating an endless cycle of deaths.
The best method to break a cycle like that was to stop it before it began.
“Will the other party survive if we wait?” Matt asked. He wasn’t as breathless as Rip, though they’d both run the same distance, but there was a wariness in the question beyond simple concern for the other party’s well being.
“No,” Alice said. “They’re down to three now, another just fell, but Pillowcase is right. Wait at the [Heart Fire] after you respawn.”
“Ok,” Rip said. “What can we do to help while we wait?”
“Nothing,” Alice said.
There wasn’t any particular inflection to the word, but to Tessa’s ears it carried a foreboding weight of doom.
“I’m sorry,” Rip said, her voice smaller than Tessa ever wanted to hear it being.
It was too familiar, that small voice. It was what Tessa heard in too many memories.
And it was, strangely, just what she needed to hear to pull her out of herself in the present.
“Waiting sucks, but it’s all part of the game,” she said reaching out to Rip in particular, though she sent the message for the whole party to hear.
“Yeah, it’s the price we pay for screwing up,” Alice said and Tessa winced.
She knew how those words would resound in Rip’s ears. Not “the price we pay” but rather than “price you pay”.
Rip was the first one to fall. Where other players might have been angry at Pillowcase or Alice for letting them be injured though, Rip had internalized it. Just like Tessa had been doing.
Other people had made mistakes, but for both of them the real worry was how their own mistakes were going to be held against them.
“And the price we pay when someone else screws up,” Tessa said. “Don’t worry Rip, none of this is on you or Matt. You two did everything right in there. Sometimes though, that can still get you killed.”
“Yeah, if anything this is on me,” Alice said, her tone gentler than it had been a moment earlier.
Did she see how Rip was taking her words? Tessa wondered, and then saw a sadder possibility.
“I don’t think any of this is on you either,” Tessa said. “Your heals couldn’t have matched the fire that took them. It was nearly an insta-kill for anyone except a tank.”
“I was healing the wrong person though,” Alice said. “I’m sorry. I’m just out of practice I guess.”
“It wasn’t you, really,” Tessa said. “You saw how Brick Spithouse was able to shield his team? Rip and Matt dropping is all on me. Your death is too. I shouldn’t have gotten distracted.”
Alice laughed, it wasn’t a mirthful sound but it was a good one.
“You were fine,” she said. “You were handling two of those things with no problem. And you turned them away from us! That’s exactly what you’re supposed to do with 99% of the mobs out there.”
“Yeah, you were great,” Matt said. “You had two of them on you and that other guy only had one.”
“That other guy, Brick, knew his limits. He’s probably still alive and kicking,” Tessa said.
“Nope,” Alice said. “He just got roasted by all three of them. He was the last to fall too, so their party is now officially TPK’d as well.”
“At least he held on to the end,” Tessa said, feeling vaguely jealous that a [Guardian] was that much tougher than a [Soul Knight].
“You used to be a healer, right?” Alice asked.
“Long ago, but yeah,” Tessa said.
Alice laughed again. “You’re still thinking like one,” she said. “You want to be the last one standing because you want everyone else to be safe right?”
“Yeah? I mean that’s what the job is, isn’t it?” Tessa asked.
“For a healer? Sure! Well, no, depending on the fight, sometimes even the healer is expendable, but the point is tanks are different,” Alice said.
“How so?” Matt asked.
“Take Brick as an example,” Alice said. “He survived till last because the monsters wiped out everyone else in his party first. He was focused on that one [Soul Blight] in front of him and he was holding on it like a champ. Meanwhile the other two were all over his healer, and me, and once we went down, the other damage dealers didn’t stand a chance.”
“So are we supposed to have three tanks then?” Rip asked.
“No, not at all,” Alice said. “We’re supposed to work together. Which is why this is my fault.”
“I definitely do not see that,” Tessa said, though she liked the spirit Alice’s words seemed to be fostering in her team.
“Picture this, if the other party wasn’t there and those three things jumped on us, what would you have done?” Alice asked.
Tessa paused to consider that. She’d made it to the [Heart Fire] but was waiting to respawn until there was a lull in the conversation. As she did, she saw the ghosts of the other party come trudging by her. They each scooped up handfuls of flame and ran right back to where they’d fallen.
“If we’d stumbled on that encounter? I guess I would have grabbed all three of the [Soul Blights] attention with the [Lesser Spirit Drain] spell and tried to tank all three.”
“Right,” Alice said. “Now consider that you were doing fine on your own against two of them at once. Would a third have been able to drop you if I’d focused my healing on you?”
“Probably not,” Tessa admitted. “I still would have failed to save Rip and Matt though.”
“Maybe,” Alice said. “Or probably. That’s a cheap move the [Soul Blights] have.”
“It cost us pretty good though,” Matt said.
“Well, it’s out fault isn’t it?” Rip said. “We went off too hard on them and so we paid the price. Then everyone else died too.”
“No, that wasn’t you,” Tessa said. “You two did fine on your damage output. If you’d gone over me I could have gotten it back for at least a moment when I attacked. I’m pretty sure those things pick a random target when they do that move.”
“But we could have moved when they turned to us,” Rip said, though it sounded like she was less sure of that being an unforgivable sin as she had been before.
“True, and we can all be ready for that next time,” Alice said. “But ‘not getting a brand new fight perfect the first time’ isn’t really a mistake. If there’d been a big warning that the [Soul Blights] were going to do that, then maybe we’d have something to work on, but this kind of thing is typical of boss battles. Or typical of higher level boss battles. It’s just stupid that the devs threw something like that into a low level dungeon like this.”
“I wonder if the devs did?” Tessa said.
“What do you mean?” Alice asked.
“Well, Aie and Zibby ran this before us right? With just two of them and they were lower level? How did they beat those three things when ten of us couldn’t manage it this time?”